I’m not going to invest in Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s plan to bring a nuclear power plant to Wyoming. I’d also prefer to not see taxpayers like myself forced to shell out hard-earned money on such an environmentally risky venture. 

No, I plan to spend any surplus cash I can muster on cornering the red flag market. Demand is about to skyrocket. As residents consider what it means to have an experimental nuclear reactor in their backyards, they’ll be waving them in droves. 

In fact, I’m raising a half-dozen red flags in this column alone, and I hope to see many more from readers in the comments section below.

Red Flag No. 1: Rapid core melting

Gates claims TerraPower’s Natrium reactor is more fuel-efficient, cost-effective and safer than the current generation of nuclear reactors. 

Are we supposed to accept Gates’ word, or should we turn to the world’s scientists and see what they have to say? The Union of Concerned Scientists has strong reservations about the sodium-cooled Natrium design.

In its 140-page report in March on “advanced” nuclear reactor designs like Natrium, the UCS stressed that such facilities could experience safety problems that aren’t an issue in the current nuclear reactor fleet. The organization said the U.S. would be better off trying to improve existing technology rather than drastically changing course.

“Sodium coolant can burn when exposed to air or water, and a sodium-cooled fast reactor could experience uncontrollable power increases that result in rapid core melting,” according to the UCS.

The phrase “rapid core melting” having anything to do with Wyoming gives me the chills. 

Red Flag No. 2: Fast-tracked safety tests

The UCS report said it could take at least 20 years and billions of dollars for federal regulators to require the necessary safety demonstrations to commercialize the type of nuclear plant that’s planned for Wyoming. 

“Commercial deployment in the 2020s would require bypassing prototype stages that are critical for assuring safety and reliability,” the UCS concluded. The group called on Congress to require the Department of Energy to convene an independent commission to study the technical merits of such proposed reactors.

But TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque is leading an entirely different discussion. “The motivator is that we need this clean energy on the grid by the 2030s,” he said at the Cheyenne news conference announcing the project. “Congress created a real sense of urgency with that.”

Unfortunately, the White House is apparently on board with such fast-tracking. “As with the president’s proposal, the American Jobs Plan, this administration will see to it that we launch more nuclear energy demonstration projects across the country,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said on a video link to the press conference.

Red Flag No. 3: Why Wyoming? Why now?

Wyoming residents are justified in wondering: “Why are we just hearing about this now?”

Project proponents didn’t just blindly throw a dart at the map and land on Wyoming. The state has exactly what energy entrepreneurs desire: desperation. The state, and our politicians, are hungry to find new ways to make up lost revenue from an industry that the marketplace is driving out of existence.

Not exactly a strong negotiating position.

Renewable energy like wind and solar are much cheaper, take only a fraction of the time to get online and also offer good-paying jobs. If Wyoming officials would aggressively recruit manufacturers to build wind turbines and solar panels, two new industries could thrive in the state.

It’s true that the Legislature has been interested in creating a regulatory framework for replacing coal-fired power plants with precisely the type of small nuclear reactors that are now on the drawing board.

But that effort has been little covered by Wyoming’s media, and I’m as guilty as anyone of giving it short-shrift. It may not be as popular to write or read about as proposed regulations on abortion, guns and gambling, but the consequences of bringing nuclear power to the state will be enormous whether it succeeds or fails.

Red Flag No. 4: Pricetag

Is anyone concerned about how much federal money will be sunk into this project? The Department of Energy gave TerraPower an $80 million grant to begin operating the first-of-its-kind commercial unit by 2027.

But that’s a drop in the bucket when we’re talking about a private-public demonstration project that will cost billions. 

If left to solely fund the experimental Wyoming project on their own dime, TerraPower and PacifiCorp probably wouldn’t make the investment. Public dollars greatly reduce their financial risks. By contrast, the Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electricity Company went bankrupt in 2017 from delays in building nuclear facilities in Georgia and South Carolina.

Red Flag No. 5: Who benefits?

A beaming Gov. Mark Gordon announced that the private-public partnership Wyoming is launching will create “hundreds of well-paying jobs” by retiring a coal-fired plant and replacing it with a multi-billion-dollar nuclear plant.

Gov. Mark Gordon smiles at the podium while U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) stands behind him during the press conference announcing efforts to advance a Natrium reactor demonstration project at a retiring coal plant June 2, 2021, inside the Wyoming Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

The specific facility has not yet been chosen, but it will be one of four plant units: Jim Bridger near Rock Springs, Naughton in Kemmerer, Dave Johnson near Glenrock and WyoDak in Campbell County. The “losers” may luck out in the end.

Gates’ company, TerraPower, is developing the experimental technology to be used at the nuclear plant. Buffett’s corporation, Berkshire Hathaway, owns PacifiCorp, whose subsidiary, Rocky Mountain Power, operates in Wyoming.

Wait a minute — these billionaire buddies stand to add bundles to their fortunes, while Wyoming gets a few hundred jobs?

Marcia Westkott, chair of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, noted that this “silver bullet” salvation for Wyoming’s economy “again diverts attention from our very real crisis in revenue, jobs and community survival.”

Her point is well taken: In all three areas, nuclear comes up lacking compared to coal’s historic contributions.

Red Flag No. 6: Billionaire blindness

We may be listening to the wrong billionaires if we buy Gates’ and Buffett’s siren song of nuclear power. Why not tune in instead to what Tesla and SpaceX revolutionary Elon Musk is working on?

I admit I’m not a fan of Musk’s bizarre decision to send a Tesla Roadster into outer space. But here on terra firma, he’s been working on impressive battery storage technology that could be the energy “game-changer” Gordon says he wants — a disruptive experimental technology that is safer and much less expensive than nuclear power.

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In 2017, Musk began construction in Australia of what was then the world’s biggest utility-scale battery project, the Hornsdale, which had a capacity of 100 thermal megawatts. It’s adjacent to a wind farm and can store surplus electricity generated on gusty nights for daytime demand.

Today, there are more than 40 big-battery projects either completed or planned across Australia with a total capacity of more than 7,000 MWt. 

And Musk is just getting started. He’s recently turned his attention to his new home state of Texas, where he’s busy developing commercial-scale battery storage units to thwart the kind of power outage disasters that wreaked havoc to the Lone Star State’s power grid in February.

That same month, U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) tweeted an invitation to Musk to relocate to Wyoming and take advantage of its business-friendly Bitcoin laws.

Whether you see him as a madcap inventor or geeky playboy, it’s worth inviting Musk to explore the wilds of Wyoming and see what he could dream. Maybe he could help extend the state’s long history of supplying energy to the nation, without all the red flags.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. US electric consumption is running about 12 million megawatt-hours per day (MWH/day).

    The largest commercially available wind turbines can produce about 14 megawatts (MW).

    The best available wind sites in the US, including some in Wyoming can provide steady enough wind for wind turbine generators to achieve a capacity factor of about 60%. Counting offshore, there is probably 100,000 square miles of “superb” wind sites available in the US.

    What all this means is that fewer than 60,000 of the largest wind turbines, installed in the best wind locations covering ~15,000 square miles (but which actually consume only about 60,000 acres of land) would provide 100% of current US electric demand.

    Since 7% of our electricity already comes from hydroelectric and 15% already comes from nuclear, there would be sufficient “dispatachable” power to offset most if not all shortfalls due to wind intermittency. If the generating capacity of our existing hydroelectric facilities could be expanded by a factor of 3 by using excess renewable power to pump water back into the reservoirs in a “pumped hydro” regime, then low carbon, dispatachable power would easily handle any wind intermittency likely to occur.

    Solar panels installed on existing roofs and parking lots (NOT virgin land), small, cheap, demand management devices (which automatically disconnect high amperage devices like air conditioners for short periods), and TOU/Interruptible electric tariffs could further secure the reliability of a 100% low carbon grid.

    The main point is that switching to all renewable, or at least all low-carbon electricity is not that difficult and undoubtedly not very expensive, especially compared to nuclear.

    The further illustrate the problems of nuclear:

    There are two nuclear reactors currently under construction in the US: Vogtle Units #3 & #4 in Georgia.
    Georgia Power and its partners will spend $25 billion on these plants to gain just 2000 MW of generating capacity. (Cost was originally estimated at $14 billion)

    That’s $12,500 per kilowatt of capacity, or ~10 times what wind generation currently costs, or ~20 times what new hydro or natural gas generation costs, or ~4x the cost of solar PV.

    These new nuclear plants have been under construction since 2009, with the latest completion date predicted to be 2022 – at least 13 years construction time.

    This project illustrates perfectly why nuclear is going the way of the dinosaur: There is neither the time nor the resources to widely deploy this technology, given what we actually know today.

    Despite these problems, it can still make sense to build an experimental reactor in Wyoming. Especially if it’s done in place of a retired coal plant such that a qualified (not to say docile) workforce, high voltage AC transmission, and other existing assets can stay in use.

    But given the advantages and potential of existing renewable tech compared to nuclear’s dismal record, I would give this new reactor just one chance in three of ever being actually built.

    For all the ballyhoo we hear today, once the realities start to sink in enthusiasm will quickly wane.

    But going “all-in” on big wind generation would be by far the best long-term initiative our government could take today for Wyoming’s people. There is an essentially unlimited demand for renewable power. If enough turbines are built they could provide as many good, permanent jobs and tax revenues as the coal industry once did.

    So it’s a shame we even need to have the nuclear discussion again. It seems so 1970’s.

  2. NO NUKES here.. We get 100 mph winds and 40 below zero blizzards almost every yr. How will this affect hauling toxic nuke waste on hwy 80 where we get 150 car pile ups.
    Also when nuke site goes wrong, how is Wyoming going to pay for clean up, we can even handle a yearly budget.
    also wyoming redneck coal truck haulers will not be getting the few cushy donut jobs at nuke plant. Those jobs will be reserved for greenies leftys from lander.

    And how is a power plant that only produces 1/3 of the power of coal, grown breaking technology or wonderful. If that was true, chevy should build a new 1 ton truck with 2/3 s less power and see how many they sell.

  3. Excellent article; you’ve done your homework. People, watch Bill Gates closely and you will learn some frightening facts. I agree; why Wyoming, why now? Think about it. Your state is one of the last pristine places left in America. Take care, Wyoming. I remain a loyal, future resident of the magnificent Cowboy state.

  4. “…Renewable energy like wind and solar are much cheaper,..”

    There’s no such thing as renewable energy.:
    For the UK’s 2050 Net-Zero targets, the number of uranium-energy machines needed would be 172. The number of wind-energy machines needed would be 53,177 plus 452,470,000 solar-energy machines:
    https://colin-megson.medium.com/there-is-no-such-thing-as-renewable-energy-b42863ab3685

    And cheaper they are not:
    £31.15 billion per year, every year, FOREVER – for WASPP machines.
    OR
    £8.11 billion per year for NPP machines:
    https://colin-megson.medium.com/by-2050-the-cccs-sixth-carbon-budget-calls-for-635-twh-year-of-despatchable-electricity-from-d1cac83a213

  5. Kerry–you hit the nail on the head, but point #3 could be expanded upon. Why now? Because the state is in a very difficult place, and politically unpopular choices will have to be made to secure the state’s fiscal future. It’s more politically palatable to talk about “transition” strategies that align with the predominant cultural and economic identities in the state–namely capital-intensive forms of energy development. Talking about a new nuclear reactor isn’t just about proposing a solution that’s unlikely to succeed for the reasons you and various commenters outlined. It’s also a way of shifting the narrative–to not talk about the more immediate, and more challenging questions that state leaders continue to dither on.

  6. “I’d also prefer to not see taxpayers like myself forced to shell out hard-earned money on such an environmentally risky venture.”

    When did Kerry Drake start worrying about how his tax dollars were being spent? For years Mr. Drake has been a proponent of government spending at all costs. Actually, when did Mr. Drake start paying taxes considering for years he advocated adopting Obamacare/medicare because he could not afford either the premiums or subsidies?

  7. Drake,

    Thanks for kicking off this discussion. I’m with Shannon Anderson: let’s find more answers.

    Meantime, we have got to give up the idea that energy production from the wind and sun is virtually free. These industrial projects gobble up thousands of acres of land, consume winter range, displace wildlife, kill birds, and may have deleterioius effects on fossiliferous critters like badgers, prairie dogs, and ferrets.

    Using the transmission lines (and corridors) serving existing power plants makes sense. But let’s make sure both the shallow and the deeper questions about this new technology for nukes are answered before we take the dive.

  8. There is “no free lunch” when it comes to energy production. It does not matter what we choose as a generating source for electricity, there are always issues, and ones that most people that are advocating ignore the warts and enhance the benefits. It is no different with nuclear, except for one glaring difference; Capitalism ruined it in most of the Western World.

    I grew up watching capitalism kill nuclear as Zimmer Nuclear plant was a big deal in my youth and for my father’s employer, Dayton Power and Light. While the socialist US Navy was continually proving one could provide electricity with minimal issues, coal fired plant executives were continually proving they could ruin it through gross mismanagement. Zimmer was 95% complete and even the fuel rods were being shipped when the plant was converted into a coal fired unit. The reason the plant was not approved by the NRC was not due to shoddy workmanship by the builders, but due to the capitalist management throwing out the x-rays of the welds that proved quality construction.

    Every hater of nuclear points to the failures but those failures were poor management and procedures that seemingly France has avoided for years as the electricity produced in that country is 72% from a nuclear source. Now what the socialist country of France did was pick one design and implement it across the board. Had America done that based on a US Navy model, we would have a fantastic nuclear operation now, instead of a technological dead end.

    Its funny America did the same thing with trash burning as instead of embracing technology to clean the air of toxins, we dug holes and implemented ill conceived recycling programs. Dumb and short sighted and one I opposed in my hometown, but hell it was a racist town so building a dump in a black area of town was a snap.

    Wyoming is going to be last on legalization of a medicinal plant, but I am extremely happy we are first in trying a design that may be part of a single solution to replace electrical generating capacity that is far more reliable than the wind or the sun. However, if Wyoming and the USA wants intermittent power and re localize that is fine by me. It was fun to watch the wind and solar advocates during the latest legislative session bloviate for their positions, while the nuclear siting bill sailed on through, much to my delight.

    It is a travesty that America is allowing spent rods to be stored in pools adjacent to operating plants, but that issue is a political problem and not a scientific one. Yucca was fine except Harry Reid.

    Renewable people, please tell me where the world is going to get all the Copper, Cobalt, lithium, lead….to build these massive battery storage systems? It’s funny the copper industry just reevaluated their reserves to include tailings that were previously mined and discarded due to the low percentages of copper on the ore.

    PS Wyoming had a nuclear plant operating in Sundance from 1960 to 1968.

    1. There is “no free lunch” when it comes to energy production.

      So true.

      The whackjobs in the Green New Deal movement can sound just as crazy as the ones advocating for any other form of energy production. But I digress. The real issue is jobs and the economy, not energy.

      “Free” federal money is what this is about. Wyoming may not become a hotbed of energy production vis-a-vis nuclear power but who cares? It looks good on paper and money flows into Wyoming in the short term.

      Am I worried about this ‘untested’ nuclear technology, or nuclear power production in Wyoming? Nope. Excited. Is it a ‘silver bullet’ for anything? Of course not. Neither is energy-wasting environmentally-unfriendly industrial tourism.

      Investments in tourism are NOT going to save Wyoming. Tourism is NOT our future, it is our failure. In that industry, wages in WY look like something out of the 1990’s while much of the mountain west is moving toward $15/hr minimum.

      Why move backwards to Wyoming for work, or stay in Wyoming instead of moving forward? Utah is crushing it with new jobs and opportunities that pay very well. Not so much in Riverton, Buffalo, Kemmerer, etc.

      Let’s take the money and the technology and give it a spin. Sometimes, the future is a space shot. Wyoming needs one.

      into the unknown.

  9. Kerry – spot on! A few key points:
    – if WY pols are so willing to embrace a non-fossil fuel energy source, why have we been fighting wind/solar tooth and nail? The supply is limitless and free, and the waste is, well, not as risky as creating another 1,000 square mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
    – nuclear power, without gov’t subsidy and the feds serving as insurer of last resort in the event of an “incident” (rapid core meltdown, anyone?), is financially uncompetitive. As you mention, who will really bear future costs?
    – I’m not against new sources of energy, but nuclear is certainly not the long term answer (at least nuclear fission). Expensive, dangerous, long-term radioactive waste (thousands of years), and the ever present Chance of a Three Mile island, Fukiyama or Chernobyl.

    The answer is clear. Renewables with improved storage and transmission.

  10. Opposed to nuclear reactors that provide carbon-free energy, and enthusiastic about Musk, Lummis, and Bitcoin? Wyoming, oh Wyoming….

    1. gill bates and buffett never pay taxes. they put THEIR money in a nefarious foundation and the department of energy gives them 80 billion in a free grant and then residents end up paying for THEIR questionable agenda. the governor is a foolish or corrupted governor to sign on to this. he may just be in THEIR club but OUR wyoming people are not in it.

  11. I’m concerned that this could just be the start of something more grand for using the retired coal pits; spent nuclear waste storage. Maybe there is legitimate reason to locate the proposed reactor at defunct coal mine sites, but the wide open, unreclaimed pit sure would be an attractive, illegitimate, dump site. Do we know the full, “real”, story behind this proposal?

  12. Waste storage – both “temporary” on-site and permanent – is another huge red flag that needs serious consideration here in Wyoming. Three of the four power plant sites being considered already experience groundwater contamination from coal ash disposal ponds. In fact, coal ash contamination and remediation with the need for a new disposal pond is a primary driver for closure of the Naughton coal plant. No answers on waste management were provided at the press conference and the FAQ on the project website is lacking in details besides to say “The waste the Natrium reactor does produce will be stored safely and securely at the same site as the reactor until the United States identifies a permanent geologic repository.” https://wyomingadvancedenergy.com/faq/ And remember, the whole idea of this technology is to be modular so adding one reactor after another with the same design (once it is fast-tracked through NRC approval as described above), Here’s another good resource for you all: https://www.nationalacademies.org/event/06-07-2021/merits-and-viability-of-different-nuclear-fuel-cycles-and-technology-options-and-the-waste-aspects-of-advanced-nuclear-reactors-meeting-6-part-2-june-7-2021 Keep asking questions, Wyoming. The answers may be out there, but we need to make sure they are satisfactory before giving our blessing to this project.